First placed on display at Camden Town in England in the old rotunda, it seems somehow poetic that a concert organ completed by Henry Willis (1821-1901) in England has become an iconic instrument sited under a ‘heritage dome’ in the Concert Room, of the City Hall at Brisbane.
The organ as an instrument at the end of the European ‘middle ages’ represented the ‘art of sound. It has been an attribute of the Patron saint of music herself the martyr St Cecilia since the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was believed to be the instrument she played at her nuptials, as she sang in her heart to God.
Before it left the August climes of Great Britain, the Willis organ as it is known, had been played by many of the eminent musicians of its day. They included Dr Davan Wetton who noted that it was ‘an instrument full of quality… the general mechanism perfection’.
It seems organ craftsman Henry Willis of the esteemed Henry Willis & Sons at London had triumphed again. His only regret voiced in a letter to friends – ‘it was going to “the other side of the world”.
The instrument arrived in Brisbane town in R.M.S. Avoca on 13th September 1892 and at first was installed in the Exhibition building. The Brisbane Courier reported its specification, which is dazzling in its innovation and technical prowess.
It became an important addition to the life of the city and, at the time, the competition to be the person who played it for the first time was fierce. In the end four were chosen, including Mr W.G. Willmore and Mrs Willmore (the esteemed Madame Mallalieu) a unique duo and Mr S.G. Benson and Mr Seymour Dicker.
The owners the Queensland National Association were in disarray a decade later and they sold it. Many hoped the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane would purchase it for their new Cathedral, which was proposed on top of the hill in Ann Street.
The Brisbane City Council however had other ideas, and it was rebuilt, enlarged and installed in their all-new and sensational Concert Room of City Hall.
Now Christopher Cook, former organist at St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane during the decade I lived in that town, has been invited back from Melbourne to perform on Willis’s grand pipe organ masterpiece in a concert at Brisbane’s City Hall.
His concert Around the World in 60 Minutes is all about showcasing its restoration, the organ having been re-installed back into its space under the hall’s newly restored ‘rotunda’.
A sensitive and skilled organist, as well as a director of music, choir master and teacher, Christopher Cook in my experience applies delicate phrasing and rhythm to enhance the interpretation of each composition he is performing.
He is also a brilliant accompanist on harpsichord and piano and will draw on the musical wealth of great composers from the 17th to the 21st century for his FREE community concert with the Yellow Cabs Bayside City Brass. This will be held at Brisbane on Tuesday 10th March from 12:00 to 1:00 pm, supported and presented by Brisbane City Council.
Both inventive and discriminating in the use of Willis’s beloved instrument, Christopher Cook will enhance its wide tonal palette and explore in depth its expressive power while celebrating not only the great composer’s rich heritage of music, but also God’s grace.
For his concert ‘Around the World in 60 Minutes‘ Christopher Cook will not only highlight the restored Willis Organ a key heritage feature, but also present a program of well-loved popular, classic and ceremonial music.
Christopher certainly dazzled visitors as well as regulars in St John’s Cathedral precinct when I lived there (2000 – 2005).
He received rousing acclamation, including standing ovations from a grateful congregation at the end of Cathedral services and at concerts I was producing for the fundraising efforts to complete the great west end of the Cathedral (2006).
I also attended concerts in Brisbane where he brilliantly accompanied acclaimed international opera singers Lisa Gasteen and Jeffrey Black on piano. He was also harpsichord accompanist for classical, jazz and rock violinist Nigel Kennedy In Recital at QPAC, including Kennedy’s spectacular Vivaldi Finale at his first encounter with the Brisbane Festival (2004).
Now Director of Music at St John’s Church Toorak in Melbourne, an organ tutor for the University of Melbourne and repetiteur, accompanist, piano and theory tutor at Haileybury and The Peninsula School in Melbourne, Christopher will play Cantique by English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), best known for his ‘Pomp and Circumstance’.
Elgar as a young man went from being a music shop assistant for his father to becoming a brilliant organist, teacher and composer in his own right. This organ solo composed in 1912 as integral to his Organ Sonata No 1 in G major, Op. 28 reveals Elgar’s ability to combine ‘nobility and spirituality’ in works distinguished by their melodic charm.
He combined gracefulness with warm and geniality to great effect, with now and then a touch of melancholy.
The concert will also include Eric Coates’ rousing March for the 1955 film The Dam Buster’s, which he stated was composed on an ‘Elgarian’ theme.
Coates had completed the work a few days before producers of the movie contacted him and it turned out he was the right man with the right music in place at the time.
By the time the sheet music was published it had acquired lyrics that have caused it to remain a favourite with the British people ever since.
Proudly, with high endeavour,
We, who are young forever,
Won the freedom of the skies.
We shall never die!
We who have made our story
Part of our Empire’s [later: ‘country’s’] glory
Know our hearts will still live on
While Britons fly!
The program will commence with an English selection including the re-working of a fantasy on the traditional folk song and tune Greensleeves, which was produced by Vaughan Williams in 1928 for his opera Sir John in Love, based on William Shakespeare’s play the Merry Wives of Windsor.
In so doing Elgar helped to make it one of the most familiar folk songs of the 20th century.
A highlight will be Christopher Cook’s amazing rendition of the Prelude and Fugue in ‘a’ minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), which I have heard him play many times with great élan.
One of the most prolific and accomplished musicians of his age, Bach’s reputation in his lifetime, was restricted to a fairly narrow circle and his music regarded by many as old-fashioned.
The revivals of interest in his many and varied works may date from the Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion on 11 Mar. 1829, conducted by Mendelssohn.
His ‘Art of Fugue’ has risen to a central place in the story of the Western musical imagination with a mysterious power filled with inextricable associations with God and the spirit wherein the synergy between nature and art are seemingly resolved.
Bach’s collected works were first published by the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society), 1851-1900 using the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Thematic-Systematic Listing of the Works of J.S. Bach) by Wolfgang Schmieder.
In 1722 Bach completed a collection of 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys, which he called “The Well-tempered Clavier”. During the next twenty years he wrote a further 24, making the present total of 48.
They have a complex structure with a wealth of detail that utilize and extend the full possibilities of the organ keyboards, and represent a challenge for any organist.
The dramatic and emotional force of his music has since spoken to succeeding generations with increasing power. To quote Wagner the fugues are ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’
In the second part of his presentation Christopher will play a compilation of works by superb French composers, including the Fugue sur le theme du carillon des Heures de la cathédrale de Soissons of French composer Maurice Durufle (1902-1986), Elfes by French composer and organist Joseph Bonnet (1884-1944), Prière et Berceuse from Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911).
Guilmant having studied both harmonics and composition composed for both choir and organ. His works were not published until after he was proclaimed organist at the newly opened (1868) Sainte-Trinité at Paris, an American Cathedral purpose built for English speakers abroad.
He travelled widely, particularly in America, bringing the organ into the popular public arena, reviving an interest in forgotten works by such greats as Bach and Georg Friderich Handel, highlighting their works in concerts he held in the Palace of Trocadéro at Paris after 1878.
Bonnet’s Elfes, Op 7, No 11 is a simply glorious work with exquisite expression in which you glide along on silvery waves of magical music and is sure to mesmerize.
Christopher Cook will bring the concert to conclusion in the grand manner and towering structure of the Baroque era in music.
One of my favourites heard at St John’s Cathedral on many occasions will be the finale piece - Symphonie VI by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937), sending everyone out on a high note.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Brisbane City Council presents
Tuesday, 10 March 2015
Brisbane City Hall, Main Auditorium,
Adelaide Street, King George Square, Brisbane City
Admission: Free (no bookings required)